Co-op schools: Is the future of education co-operation?

Co-op schools: Is the future of education co-operation?
The Guardian

Simon Birch looks at the spectacular rise of co-op education, one of the fastest growing sectors in the co-op economy

Harold Wilson would surely have approved. The Labour prime minister’s old grammar school in Huddersfield is now one the country’s leading co-op schools and a passionate supporter of the spectacular growth of this type schools.

"I’m really very excited about co-op schools," says Melanie Williams headteacher at Royds Hall High School in Huddersfield. "I can’t imagine working any other way."

The first co-op school was established in 2008 and, by the start of the new academic year this September, there will be more than 350 such schools, with many more in the pipeline, an achievement which has even taken the co-op school movement by surprise.

"We’ve been shocked by just how popular co-op schools have proved to be," confesses Mervyn Wilson, who leads the Manchester-based Co-operative College which develops and supports schools making the transition to co-op school status.

"We’re now the third largest association of schools in England after church-run schools, a ranking which has largely gone unnoticed."

Such has been the dramatic growth of co-op schools that they constitute one of the three fastest growing sectors of the already booming UK co-op economy.

So what exactly is a co-op school? Before this can be answered a short history lesson is required – pay attention at the back now.

The very first school which was run along co-operative principles can be traced back to the 1830s. Since those pioneering days, education has played a central role in co-op activity.

However by the 1960’s many aspects of the co-op economy were thought to be outdated and plainly irrelevant, so co-op schools quietly slipped out of fashion.

What led to their renaissance was Blair’s 2006 Education and Inspections Act. This introduced the idea of trust schools, which were trumpeted as "independent state schools"; they allowed for a loosening of the ties between local authorities and schools.

While they would remain funded by local authorities, schools would become charitable trusts, with other key features, including establishing long-term partnerships with outside groups such as local businesses and charities who would then become involved with the school’s governance and leadership.

The smart thinkers at the Co-operative College spotted that this presented a golden opportunity to develop a co-operative-based model for trust schools. The result was that in 2008 Reddish Vale technology college in Stockport became the first ground-breaking co-operative trust school in England, which heralded the current revolution in co-op led education.

In answer then to what defines a co-op school, Wilson, at the Co-operative College, identifies two key features. "The first is that the co-op values of democracy, equity and fairness are applied right across the school," he explains.

"The second is a governance model that directly engages key stakeholders through membership of the trust that includes, parents and carers, staff, the local community and the pupils themselves.

Together they form a community-based mutual organisation."

It is a governance model that Wilson says puts the school right at the heart of local communities, which in turn have a direct input into how their school is run.

So what exactly are the benefits of a co-op school?

"One of the key advantages are the opportunities that the partner organisations can bring to the school," says Wilson, who adds that co-op schools are encouraged to team up with other local co-ops or social enterprises. Royds Hall, for example, which became a co-op school in 2011 has a trustee from the Fairtraders Co-operative from nearby Holmfirth.

"Having a trustee who’s directly involved with the Fairtrade movement has helped the students to run the school as a Fairtrade school," says headteacher Melanie Williams, "and it’s a relationship that’s worked very well for us.

"The values and worldwide nature to being a co-operative is also very much at the forefront of our planning and strategy and has enabled us to establish links with other co-ops around Europe. Making these links to the wider world really helps to raise the attainment for students because you’re widening their horizons.

"In turn this has contributed to developing our citizenship and partnership work for which we have scored an outstanding from Ofsted."

While some co-op schools see direct benefits for pupils in terms of their learning and development, others see the co-op trust model as offering practical benefits. A key feature is that it allows schools to collaborate, pool resources and save money.

"We’re finding that the most enthusiastic supporters of these ‘co-op clusters’ are primary schools who are now converting to co-op trust status in large numbers," says Dave Boston, in charge of the Schools Co-operative Society which acts as a trade body for co-op schools.

"They want to keep local relationships and networks together, plus there are capacity issues around sharing resources, skills and knowledge."

One of these clusters is Brigshaw Trust in West Yorkshire which is made up seven primary and one high school, representing around 4,000 pupils.

"The trust was formed in 2010 with the belief that together this group of schools could work more effectively for children and young people than they could as individual schools," says Peter Laurence, the trust’s development director, who is the former headteacher of its high school.

Acting as a microcosm of a local authority, the trust provides a multi-agency support team for each child that includes a consultant educational pyschologist, attendance improvement officer and family outreach worker.

"We’re now able to support the needs of children that can’t be met by any one individual school and, because we act as the local children’s service right at the point of delivery, we don’t make referrals to outside agencies anymore," says Laurence.

With Brigshaw Trust now getting outstanding Ofsted inspections, the benefits of these clusters speak for themselves.

So while co-op schools are clearly attractive in their own right, the main driver behind their success is that many see them as providing a bulwark against what is seen as the increasing and relentless privatisation of education.

The Conservative-led coalition is now steaming ahead with its controversial programme of promoting private-run academies, independent schools set up with the help of outside sponsors which are outside of the control of local authorities.

The Co-operative Group itself sponsors three academies in England.

Critics of these academies – and there are many – claim that they are anti-democratic, with little or no accountability to their local communities.

"Increasing numbers of headteachers don’t want to see their schools gobbled up in a marketised system by the rapidly growing chains of academy companies," says Mervyn Wilson. "There’s a massive desire for many people working within the education profession for a values-driven ethical model for schooling."

Melanie Williams agrees with Wilson: "We didn’t want to become an academy and felt that the co-operative model offered the right values and were right for the school. We very firmly believe that we should remain part of a local school community."

While many in education are enthusiastically supportive of co-op schools, they still have their critics.

"Some academies have chosen the co-op as a sponsor or have adopted a co-op model of governance for their academy. For this reason, they claim they are different from the academy chains which operate as ‘edu-businesses’," says Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academy Alliance.

"There may well be different intent, but the outcome is the same. It is just ‘privatisation by nice guys’."

The co-op schools movement rejects this criticism, pointing out that the co-op model of academies, of which there are now 25, the so called convertor co-op academies, guarantee a democratic governance model.

To offset union unease about the development of these academies, the Schools Co-operative Society has recently reached a landmark agreement with the NASUWT, the largest teachers’ union, which has now swung its considerable support behind the co-op school movement.

While not dropping its opposition to academies, the union has taken a massively pragmatic approach of recognising that co-op schools and academies represent the best way to ensure that state schools remain out of bounds to the profit-hungry private academies.

"Collaboration and co-operation is in the best interests of all children and young people," says Chris Keates, the union’s general secretary.

Steve Baker, headteacher at the Lipson community college in Plymouth, agrees with Keates.

"Co-operation is about is trying to reduce inequality," says Baker.

"It’s difficult to do this on your own but there are more and more people now standing up for what they believe in. Reducing inequality has got to be worth fighting for in education."

Where pupils think of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’

The catchment area for Lipson Community College is inner city Plymouth, one of the most deprived areas in the south west. In 2008 the school was named and shamed by Gordon Brown as one of the country’s worst performing schools.

From this low point the school has fully embraced a co-operative approach to learning which has led to a dramatic turnaround. Now a convertor co-op academy, the school is showcased as an example of how co-operative principles applied to education can achieve dramatic results.

A report of a recent Ofsted inspection identified, "an exceptionally calm, safe and co-operative environment for learning", which it said provided outstanding "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development".

"We’ve immersed ourselves in co-operative learning," explains the head teacher, Steve Baker. "This is a very planned and structured teaching technique which came in from North America."

Practically, what this means, says Baker, is that there is deep engagement with every child, no child is left behind and everyone has to be part of a functioning co-operative group within a classroom.

"Students consider the ‘we’ in a learning situation rather than ‘me’," explains Baker. "Everyone is given a specific role. It’s not as simple as peer-led learning, where more gifted students help the others."

Baker is now totally won over by the benefits of a co-operative-led school.

"After just four years we’re now seeing tremendous results and it’s having a positive impact on every aspect of school performance from behaviour and results to attendance. Our figures in all these areas are now above the national average. We’re very pleased."